Finding forgotten paths just got much easier, thanks to the introduction of the Ramblers’ new online tool. Discover why we should all be playing ‘spot the difference’ this spring.
By: Elyssa Campbell-Barr
As we enter the 2020s, we’re a step closer to a significant milestone – one causing concern for walking enthusiasts across England and Wales. The deadline for adding unrecorded historic paths to official maps is now less than six years away. Any historic rights of way not logged by 1 January 2026 are at risk of being lost. Forever.
It’s estimated that 16,000km/10,000 miles of paths – enough to reach from London to Sydney – don’t appear on local councils’ definitive maps. As the mission to record the missing paths becomes increasingly urgent, we’re using two unique Ramblers resources to help with the hunt.
The first is our new Don’t Lose Your Way online platform. This clever website (developed with funding from Ramblers Holidays Charitable Trust) divides the whole of England and Wales into 1km by 1km squares and lets users ‘spot the difference’ between a square on the current OS map and two from over a century ago.
The second resource is you – our members and supporters. With around 150,000 squares on the map, each needing to be checked twice (three times if any missing paths are found), this is a huge undertaking. If we are to save our lost paths before the 2026 deadline, we need as many people as possible to get involved in this vital first phase of the campaign.
Safeguarding our heritage
‘We’re expecting many of the squares, possibly even half of them, to have something in them,’ says Jack Cornish, Don’t Lose Your Way programme manager. ‘These paths are part of our heritage – they tell the history of ordinary people and how they’ve interacted with the landscape. We need to safeguard them as much as castles and cathedrals.’ It’s not just Ramblers members who can use the new crowdsourcing platform, but anyone interested in our heritage and creating a legacy for the future. Local history groups, parish councils, Scout and Guide troops, and geography classes at schools and colleges can all get involved.
‘Get friends, family and your local community engaged, or hunt for paths with your children or grandchildren,’ urges Jack. ‘The benefits are tangible. More places to walk, better access to the countryside, and a path network that makes more sense.’
Why are so many paths missing?
Government legislation passed in 1949 required most local councils to draw up a ‘definitive map’ of all the footpaths, bridleways and byways in their area. In some parishes the mapping was pretty thorough, but in others few routes were recorded. In 2000, the Countryside and Rights of Way Act included a commitment to ‘extinguish’ any pre-1949 paths not included on definitive maps by 2026. A ticking clock had been set.
‘There are several thousand unrecorded public rights of way in Cornwall alone and we have already identified about 2,500 likely candidates,’ explains Cornwall Ramblers’ Bob Fraser. Bob has made two dozen applications for paths to be added to the county’s map already. ‘If Cornwall is typical of the rest of England and Wales in this respect, there is a likelihood of tens of thousands of paths being extinguished.’
‘In Hampshire, we estimate that there are up to 700 routes to recover,’ adds Paul Howland of Andover Ramblers. ‘In some areas, up to 20% of the rights of way appear not to have been properly recorded. Without a really big effort by lots of people, these routes will be lost forever.’
Few people are making a bigger effort than Paul. He has personally submitted 60 applications, covering 110 separate rights of way, to get missing paths added to Hampshire’s definitive map. ‘I hano prior knowledge about this work when I started it,’ he says.
‘All that is really needed is time, the ability to do internet searches, and Sarah Bucks and Phil Wadey’s book Rights of Way: Restoring the Record to guide you.’
Paul explains that rights of way went unrecorded for all sorts of reasons. In some cases, landowners illegally closed paths without following official procedures. In others, temporary wartime stopping-up orders weren’t reversed. Some footpaths were forgotten when new roads or houses were built. Some councils came under pressure from large estates not to record routes accurately. Some just weren’t very good at it.
How to find a lost path
If any part of any path isn’t applied for by 2026, it could be blocked or built over without anyone legally able to object.
You might imagine a lost footpath being a long-forgotten track overgrown with brambles and nettles, or made impassable by a collapsed wall or rotten bridge. But paths like this are only part of the story. Many lost ways are hiding in plain sight, used daily by ramblers, shoppers or commuters, but not properly mapped.
When comparing current and historic maps, look out for footpaths (FP), bridle roads (BR) and roads on the old map that don’t appear on the new one. Check the full length of the path on the modern map. If a route stops abruptly at a parish border, doesn’t quite reach a junction or isn’t mapped accurately around a post-1949 building development, the council’s definitive map needs to be modified.
When you’re out walking, look out for stone stiles in old walls, which might be an entry point to an ancient path. Two parallel hedges often indicate an old bridleway. If you find cobbles in a field or river, you might have stumbled across an old track or ford.
The next stage is to find evidence of usage. This most commonly comes from old maps and personal accounts, but can turn up in surprising places. One person visiting London’s Tate Britain Gallery identified a forgotten Suffolk path in a 1747 Gainsborough painting!
Identifying a lost right of way is the first vital step in saving it. The next job is applying to the county council or unitary authority to change the official map by making a Definitive Map Modification Order (DMMO). Each application typically includes 10 to 20 pieces of evidence, with the whole process of gathering information, filling in forms and contacting landowners taking around 15 to 30 hours, often over several months.
‘Like nearly everything we do at the Ramblers, this is a volunteer-led project. We’re giving people the tools and support to do the research and put these routes back on the map,’ Jack explains.
To meet the deadline, DMMOs must be submitted by 1 January 2026 in England, but fortunately don’t need to be processed by then. In Wales, the government has agreed to drop the deadline in principle, pending a formal amendment to the law books. With overstretched local authorities already sitting on a backlog of thousands of applications, it may take time for some of the missing paths identified this spring to appear on official maps.
Searching far and wide
The Don’t Lose Your Way project has already attracted a lot of media interest, with coverage in the Times, The Sunday Telegraph, Express and Guardian, as well as on BBC Breakfast and Radio 4.
Even the New Yorker magazine has highlighted the issue, with a journalist joining Jack and Bob on a search for forgotten footpaths in Cornwall.
‘The media coverage has shown us that this issue isn’t just of interest to Ramblers members, it inspires people far more widely,’ says Jack. ‘We’ve already had 5,000 people download our guide to finding lost rights of way, mostly non-members, from as far away as New Mexico.’
So what’s the attraction? ‘It’s about becoming a detective, delving back into history to reclaim a right of way and safeguard it for future generations,’ Jack explains. ‘As one volunteer said to me: “The paths I’ve put back on the map will be there for centuries. There’s not much you do in life that you can say that about!”’
Five steps to finding a missing footpath
- Visit dontloseyourway.ramblers.org.uk and sign up.
- Select a 1km square to investigate. (You can choose any in England or Wales, but it’s probably best to start with an area you know well.) Or you can pick one at random.
- Compare the paths on the current and historic maps by using the slider to view each one. It’s easy to switch between historic maps.
- If you find any paths on the historic map that aren’t on the modern map, draw on the line of the path that is missing. You can see ‘FP’ and ‘BR’ labels to point you in the right direction of missing paths.
- Once you’ve thoroughly searched your entire 1km square, press submit and move on to another.
Holy Well Path, Cornwall
When Bob Fraser joined a working party to clear vegetation around St Gluvias’ Well in Penryn, he heard other volunteers talking about overgrown paths nearby. A check of historical maps revealed a short road to the well, never recorded as a right of way. Bob found plenty of evidence for this road, including tithe documents from around 1840 and a Finance Act 1909-1910 map, all of which he included in his Definitive Map Modification Order (DMMO).
The Markway, Hampshire
Paul Howland first spotted a missing mile of the Markway on a 1791 county map. He discovered that a temporary stopping-up order – made during the Second World War when nearby RAF Chilbolton was a base for Hurricane aircraft – was not reversed until 1956, by which time the lost mile was overgrown. Searches in records locally and at the National Archives in Kew revealed lots of evidence for the path, from pre-First World War OS maps to a 1940s National Farm Survey. If approved, his DMMO will connect other paths, creating useful new routes for walkers, riders and cyclists.
Icknield Way, Suffolk
An eight-mile Suffolk section of the ancient Icknield Way – which stretches from Norfolk to Wiltshire – was located by John Andrews. It can be seen on various old maps, including Joseph Hodskinson’s 1783 map of Suffolk, where it is named ‘The Old London Road’. It is now recorded as a byway open to all traffic running across land in an area where there are few recorded rights of way.
Supported by Players of People’s Postcode lottery, Ramblers Holidays Charitable Trust and East Berkshire Ramblers